Rhapsody in Penguins II — Second Movement: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831)
by Victor Hugo
translated by John Sturrock

First things first: with my selective reading habits, it is inevitable that there will be a Classic that I have been unable to finish, and this book, unfortunately, is the first of many Classics that still await a complete reading. Although I bought it in the spring of 2014, and have made no less than three attempts to break into it, I have always abandoned it in search of other, less winding books. (The French seem to be experts at producing books that I abandon — “Madame Bovary”, which I bought two years ago, is another example.)

A glance at basically any passage in the book tells you why. Here is the last passage I read before I threw it aside:

Some of these suburbs had their importance. Starting from the Tournelle, there was first of all the Bourg St-Victor, with its single-arched bridge over the Bievre… and its church, whose octagonal steeple was flanked by four eleventh-century bell turrets (one like it can be seen at Etampes)…

(Finally, we have found a writer even more diversionary and boring than me.)

Victor Hugo wrote the novel mainly to scream about how important Gothic architecture was. This he does by describing in HEAVY detail — far more than what the story actually requires — every nook and cranny of the buildings you would have seen in 1480s Paris. We are repeatedly told about each building’s amazing features, every tile and arch contributing to this rich tapestry of architecture that is very very VERY precious — oh, and it would be such an injustice if they were to all disappear from our lovely city!

In this respect, the book is a lot like a 19th-century Mamma Mia, taking us through the greatest hits of Gothic architecture, but with no singing and dancing. (The Disney version doesn’t count.) However, this is Hugo we’re talking about (no, not the character in the Scorsese film). His high pedestal, combined with Penguin’s choice to include it as a “Classic”, means that there has to be something that people see in this book. So what is it? Could it be that the attention to detail actually involves something worthy of note?

Hugo’s intricate description of Paris may be long and winding, but a slightly more imaginative reader might be able to visualize the beauty that he sees in all the shambles. He may go on like a builder on steroids, but they do help give us a good idea of what kind of place the protagonists are operating in. This is, we are told, a beautiful city, its skyline filled with the stark outlines of Gothic buildings, majestic and foreboding, something straight out of a dream or a fairytale.

Dreams, however, always include a nightmare or two. Under the pretty exteriors that Hugo so elegantly describes, there exist narrow streets, rife with unsavoury characters. When Pierre Gringoire bumbles his way through the backstreets in pursuit of Esmeralda he loses track of where he’s going and manages to charge right into the darkest heart of Paris. And here is how he describes it:

He was in the Court of Miracles, where no law-abiding man had ever penetrated at such an hour: a magic circle where officers or provost sergeants who ventured into it vanished in small pieces — a city of thieves, a hideous wen on the face of Paris.

Make no mistake, the people who surround him are no bunch of rogues with a heart of gold. They are corrupt human beings with a twisted sense of humour and justice (so, like all of us then), who kill almost any trespassing outsider. Whatever we thought of when we think of Paris, this is not it.

Paris, then as now, was a city of splendid architecture (as anyone who knows my writing history will know), and as I’ve said above, most of this was Gothic. And when we think of the Gothic, there’s always a feeling of apprehension that underlies everything. The gloom inherent in Gothic churches gives us the feeling that there is evil lurking under the surface, something that the pretty exteriors can’t really hide. So it’s pretty interesting that Victor Hugo chooses to wax lyrical about these buildings, as if to remind us of what the characters in this novel are like. We have Claude Frollo, a serial fantasist; we have Esmeralda, vain and shallow; and we have Captain Phoebus, a torrid git. They all look saintly and/or beautiful on the outside, but inside lies corruption to a HUGE extent.

Sadly, each character fails to see the impurities within each other: like almost every self-absorbed person on Earth, their knowledge of others is completely based on appearances. There’s a nice little episode in the novel where Quasimodo basically tries to persuade Esmeralda that he’s the better catch: he puts in front of her a lovely rose in a modest earthen pot and a withered one in a cracked vase made of the loveliest crystal. That Esmeralda promptly pounces on the vase with the dried-up carcass of a rose is… a bit on-the-nose, yes, but also indicative of how superficial her ideas of loveliness in a person are. She’s so caught up in the packaging, she has no clue of the dangers behind it.

And it’s this juxtaposition of the two ideas of beauty that (sort of) justifies the author’s decision to describe in detail the architecture that surrounds all the characters — all we see are the glamourous outer layers, layers that dazzle us. And we’re so busy admiring them that we fail to pay attention to the unfathomable insides, of which we’re only given the most cursory of glances. It’s the perfect object lesson. (Oh hey, this book’s not so boring after all.)

One more thing: this reliance on appearance not only blinds everyone to the ugliness within each other, it also blinds them to their own, hideous nature. Right at the end, just before Claude Frollo shows his true capabilities as an arsehole, he complains to Esmeralda how sad her ultimate rejection has made him:

“If those stones could speak,” he murmured, “yes, they would say that here stands a very unhappy man.”

First of all, UNHAPPY? You are speaking to a woman whom you tried to sexually assault at least TWICE, whose life and death is on the line, and who has absolutely poor taste in men (though that last one is debatable). You, by contrast, stabbed yourself once (!) while trying to “prove your love”. To put it in ways you might understand, “tu bastardis”.

But let’s look at this pitiable man a little closer. Because if the impartial, unpretentious stones of the Place de Greve could have spoken, they would have agreed with Frollo’s bout of self-pity, however self-serving it is. But they’d also have given Esmeralda a little context: he is unhappy not because Esmeralda doesn’t love him, but because his pride’s been hurt and he’s actually being pushed over the edge. Frollo thinks of himself as this tragic hero, somebody who can never do wrong. But his behaviour throughout the preceding 400 pages have already laid bare what kind of person he really is — an advantage that only we, as the reader, possess. In the meantime, Frollo continues to inflict pain on others, under a serious delusion that he deserves to be loved. That lack of clarity about himself is what enables him to continue being a complete prick despite his religious stature, and further his downward spiral.

And this brings me to my point this time: how well can we possibly know a person? We all know the drill: you think you’ve know a friend well for years and years, and suddenly boom, you’re devastated (or if you’re lucky, pleasantly surprised) by a side of that person that you never knew before. Maybe they’re pretty good at hiding it themselves; maybe they’re secretive to the point of being a mystery. But very few people are like that: most of the time, it’s because you didn’t pay enough attention, and thought you knew everything about him/her. That’s never the case — everyone has their own secrets. (No, no personal traumas have recently befallen me — I’m just a bit too guarded when it comes to relationships.)

But rather than turning this post into a call of “look at thy neighbour suspiciously”, I’d just like to close by asking us all to spend more time looking at others more. That attitude of thinking you know everything about a person is, at the end of the day, quite self-absorbed, and not good for the maintenance of interpersonal relationships. Look past the exterior — take some time to really look at the insides — and perhaps what we might find will be a wake-up call to ourselves.

Next time: Archdeacon Frollo was, despite his saintly appearance, a lecherer and a pompous prat. Our next novel does a similar thing: being all appearances, only “The Picture of Dorian Gray” reminds us of the depths to which its protagonist has sunk.

(Quotations from the Penguin Classics edition of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, published as “Notre-Dame de Paris”, translated by John Sturrock, reprint published 2004, featured photo from cover of said book.)

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